Essential Timber Framing Tools

by ziggy on April 27, 2015 -- 1 comment -- Follow

Millers Falls Boring Machine in Action

This list should help you get started down the path of timber framing with hand tools

Like any craft, the world of timber framing comes with its own unique set of tools. And if you’re new to this type of work, it’s important to have the right timber framing tools in your kit. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to cost a small fortune to equip yourself with the basics. Of course, once you get deeper into this kind of stuff, you’ll always find something else you think you probably need. But for a solid starter kit, you can get by with a relatively small handful.

I’ve narrowed down a list of essential timber framing tools, highlighting both inexpensive options for folks starting out, and more expensive choices for someone that thinks they may continue down this line of work.

The Essential Timber Framing Tools

I’m not going to bother with stuff that should hopefully be obvious here, like a tape measure, pencils, etc. This list includes tools you likely don’t own if you’re not already timber framing. I also don’t include stuff like rigging equipment and the like — this is strictly a list of necessary items for layout and cutting wood.

Antique Framing Squares

Antique framing squares — remember, rust can always be removed!

Framing Square

A framing square is the tool that paves the way for everything else to follow. It’s essential for layout, and if you really know your stuff, you can use it to calculate roof angles and all sorts of other fun stuff. For square rule timber framing, there’s no question that you need a square. Or two.

  • Cheap option: Vintage flea market square

Thankfully, you can find vintage squares at flea markets fairly readily, and many of them aren’t in awful shape, either. Be sure the square is actually square, though. How do you check? Use the 3-4-5 rule and with a tape measure, measure between the 12″ and 16″ gradations on either leg. It should read 20″. If it is anything but that, put it back. Don’t spend more than a few bucks on an old square, and remember — light rust can always be easily removed.

Once you’ve done a frame or two or three, you may want to “graduate” to something more than a standard framing square. The Borneman layout tool, sold through the Timber Framers Guild shop, is an extremely handy tool. Think of it as a speed square designed specifically for timber framing. Laying out mortises and tenons accurately and quickly is a breeze with this thing. It’s almost like cheating. It comes at a cost, though: $125, to be exact.

The Chappell Universal Square (or as they say, “the best square in the universe”) is a pretty fancy square with clear gradations and nifty calculation tables. I cannot personally vouch for it being “the best”, so you’ll have to find out for yourself. At $125, it’s not the first square I’d consider buying.

Combination Squares

Above is a 12″ Stanley combo square, and below a 7″ Empire — both inexpensive and adequate

Combination Square

A combination square is an extremely handy little tool to have close at hand. It’s not the first and foremost layout tool, but for specific measuring and marking tasks, it’s a lovely thing to have around. You can transfer measurements quickly, and they’re excellent for checking depths and for square in a mortise.

  • Cheap option: Vintage, or Empire 6″, 7″ or Stanley 12″ square

Vintage combination squares are not too hard to find, but locating one that is easy to read, doesn’t rock in its track, and has a smooth action is less easy. They’re out there, though. If you’re unwilling to search, Empire makes a decent 6″ and 7″ square. (I prefer the 7″ — that extra inch is often very helpful.) Stanley makes a good value 12″ combo square as well.

Starrett combo squares are the cream o’ the crop. They’re cast iron, made in the US, smooth as butta’, and easy to read. They’re a pretty penny, though — one is the same price as 6 or more less expensive tools. Though people that use them swear by ’em. Again, all that is fine and good if you’re going to use it on a daily or very regular basis.

Stanley Sharptooth Saw

Whatever style you choose, make sure it’s sharp and ready to go

Hand Saw

Saw choices can be very personal, and people can be pretty particular about what they like, whether it’s a western style saw that cuts on the push, or a Japanese saw that cuts on the pull stroke. Whatever style you choose, an above-average saw is a must have if you’re going the hand tool route.

  • Cheap Option: Stanley Sharptooth 20″ saw

Stanley makes a decent saw under the name of the “Sharptooth“. The 20” version with 9 points per inch is a respectable choice for folks familiar with western style saws, which cut on the push stroke. They can be easily found at your local hardware store for about $30. They can’t be readily resharpened (if at all), but they’re alright. I’ve honestly gotten tired of them myself and have come to prefer other saws, but these are really not all that bad for a introductory/budget saw.

I mostly prefer a Japanese-style saw that cuts on the pull stroke, and the choices are numerous. There are a huge number of options. Perhaps the most relevant thing to consider is the blade length — get something that’s at least 300 mm (10+ inches). A ryoba is a sweet choice, because you get two blades in one — a crosscut and a rip saw on the same handle. And actually, a respectable ryoba blade shouldn’t cost too much more than a decent western saw. Silky makes any number of folding saws, which are really convenient on the work site, and the longer blade lengths fetch a pretty sum.  The choice is yours. If you can, try a few before you buy. I know that’s not always possible, but you don’t have a spend a fortune on a coarse-toothed Japanese crosscut saw. There are many reasonable options.

chisel-roll03

Some antique chisels, and a Barr 1 1/2″ framing chisel, 2nd from left

Framing Chisel

Framing chisels are the most versatile tool for cutting joinery, other than a saw of course. Great for wasting away tenons, chopping mortises, and paring joints, everyone needs at least one chisel. A 1 1/2″ chisel is hard to beat in the functionality department — it will cut (almost) every joint you will likely need to cut, and it’s light enough that it won’t weigh you down. Two inch chisels are less versatile — same for 1″ chisels. These can be nice to have eventually, but make a 1 1/2″ your first priority.

  • Cheap Option: Vintage 1 1/2″ chisel

I’ll be honest here. Sadly, I can count the number of framing chisels I’ve seen for sale at flea markets on one hand. And I’ve bought nearly every one of them that was worth a lick o’ salt. I’m not sure why they’ve been so elusive for me, but they have. Maybe you’ll have better luck in your area.

An important note, too: perhaps the most critical thing to consider when buying a used chisel is the back side of the tool — it should be dead flat, or at least as close as possible. (Always bring a straight edge with you when shopping for old tools to check for flatness.) Why? Flattening the back of the chisel is one of the most tedious things I can think of, and without a flat back, the tool will never live up to it’s true (sharp) potential. I won’t go on too much about that here (maybe in another post), but please make sure that what you’re buying is as flat as possible. Bevels can always be reground, but it’s much harder to lap the back of a chisel to bring it to dead flat. It can be done, but it can may several hours of repetitive work.

As a rule, I dislike buying used tools online, but I’ll consider it if I trust the seller. Patrick Leach, Hyperkitten, and Jim Bode are good choices and occasionally have respectable framing chisels, but they’re not always a bargain, either.

Barr Tools is practically the go-to for new chisels. That’s because Barr Quarton is one of the few individuals hand-forging quality framing chisels in this day and age. These are beautiful tools, top quality, and ready to use when they arrive in the mail. The backs are dead flat, and the bevels are fully honed. At $130+, it’s not a cheap buy, but when you consider that you might spend $20-50 on a decent vintage chisel, plus potentially several hours getting it in useable condition… well, $130 might not look so bad after all. Plus, you’re supporting a top notch craftsman.

Timber Framing Mallets

Take your pick!

Mallet

A mallet is a grunt tool. They’re designed for striking chisels and other equivalent tools. Mallets appropriate for timber framing are in the 32 oz. department, give or take. They should be heavy enough to be efficient at their task, but not so heavy that your wrists are at the brink of destruction after swinging one all afternoon.

  • Cheap Option: DIY turned or carved mallet

Thankfully, making your own mallet is a pretty simple affair. As long as it’s comfortable and weighted appropriately, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. Whether you carve it or turn it is up to you (and the tools that you have access to). Your choice wood should be dense and not prone to splitting — hickory, dogwood, and osage are all good choices. A mallet will be easiest to make when the wood is green, but they excel in use once actually seasoned.

If you want an indestructible, ready-to-go mallet, you have a couple choices. The somewhat ironically named ‘Wood is Good’ plastic head mallet is more or less unbreakable, and some folks like these because the poly head absorbs some of the shock of impact. More hammer-like in use is the Garland split-head rawhide mallet, also built like a tank and with replaceable rawhide hammer faces. These are weighted nicely and have a satisfying strike.

antique block planes

In the rear is a typical Stanley standard angle block plane, and in front is a 60 1/2 low angle block plane

Block Plane

Of all the planes you might want or need while doing timber frame joinery, a block plane is a highly useful tool that can be put to regular good use. A block plane can shave end grain and fix convex end cuts or shoulders, they’re fantastic for tuning in tenons for a tight fit, and they’re great for chamfering edges. They also make for a good eraser on rough-sawn wood. Versatile indeed.

  • Cheap Option: Vintage Stanley #60 1/2, or any other good condition block plane

My first pick would be a low angle block plane such as a Stanley #60 1/2, which offers all the abilities of a standard block plane, but… they’re just better. The extra low angle means they can deal with funky or difficult grain more successfully. A standard angle block plane is fine, too, and are more common at flea markets. People have written volumes on planes, so I’ll just say — find one that fits your hand well, can be brought to working order without too much fuss, and won’t cost you a bundle. Remember that straight edge to ensure that the sole of the plane is flat.

  • Expensive Option: Anything new, Lie-Nielsen or Veritas Block Plane

If you want a shiny piece of metal in the form of a block plane, there are several companies ready to receive the full contents of your wallet. Veritas and Lie-Nielsen make a perplexing number of new planes, among them several styles of block plane. For the purpose of timber framing, I don’t see any reason to seek out a $300 plane when you can get a vintage tool for $10-$30. But I promised an “expensive option”, so there you go!

Timber Frame Boring Machines

A selection of boring machines, designed specifically for boring large diameter holes

Drilling Tools

This is a tough category. The options for drilling are pretty limited in the hand tool arena. That’s because timber framing requires some pretty giant (1-2″) holes for hogging out mortises and drilling peg holes. A brace and bit is fine for anything in the 1″ category (mostly just drilling peg holes), but you’ll need a serious auger for drilling mortises. I have limited experience with these tools — it is very difficult to have to depend solely on t-handle augers for drilling. Frankly, they’re pretty difficult to use. But! They cost almost nothing at flea markets, if you can find one in good shape.

  • Cheap Option: Brace and bit with 1″ auger bit, 1 1/2″ and 2″ t-handle augers

The most common diameter hole sizes for joinery are 1″, 1 1/2″, and 2″. So you’ll need the ability to drill out those sizes. You’ll also need some serious elbow grease. Better yet…

  • Expensive Option: Boring machine with 1″, 1 1/2″, and 2″ drill bits

A boring machine is an excellent investment, and they represent the top pick for any serious level of drilling work for timber frame construction. Any boring machine you find is default antique (none have been manufactured in at least 60, 70+ years), and there are several different models floating out there: Millers Falls, Ajax, Boss, James Swann, etc. In the words of Tom Cundiff, the Millers Falls is the “Cadillac” of the boring machines — it’s spectacularly engineered, extremely well-made and durable, and has some nifty features including a reliable depth stop, and an easy gear reversal switch (to easily back the bit out of holes). These are beautiful, efficient tools. If you’re lucky, you can find one without having to spend an arm or leg on craigslist. You’ve got to keep watch though. I highly recommend scoring a boring machine if you want to seriously pursue hand tools for timber framing.

Diamond Stones

Sharpening with a set of diamond stones, from very coarse to fine

Sharpening Kit

A sharpening kit is absolutely essential for anyone working with edge tools. (Don’t think just because I’m listing it as the last item that it’s any less important than the others!) There are so many different choices out there for sharpening that I’m just going to forgo my “cheap” and “expensive” options and list a few different possibilities. All have varying pros and cons.

Choices range from sandpaper with a plate of glass (or flat piece of granite) to waterstones, diamond stones, oil stones, and others. Sandpaper and glass is cheap, but sandpaper must be bought on an on-going basis and can wear out quickly. Coarse grits are great for defining a bevel or lapping the back of a chisel.

Japanese watersones cut quickly, but need to be regularly maintained, and they’re a bit messy to work with. If you’ve got a set of waterstones, you may want one super coarse diamond stone just to flatten your stones. And diamond stones… they need basically no maintenance, but can be pretty expensive. They also have a different “feel” than waterstones. Keeping a leather strop with honing compound around is also highly recommended for the finishing touch, regardless of what system you choose.

Bonus Tools!

The following tools are not strictly necessary, though they are certainly useful. You can get by without these, but they give you some distinct advantages in some situations. None of these are strictly beginner tools.

  • Slick — picture a big ol’ chisel, about 2 – 3″ wide, on a long handle. These are designed for paring joints, like tenon cheeks and big mortises. They work well for defining a nice flat surface.
  • Corner Chisel — a corner chisel can help speed up mortise cleanup. The corners are often the trickiest aspect of cleaning out a mortise, and a corner chisel (well-sharpened) can help speed things along. They’re a bit tricky to maintain, and highly specific… but a corner chisel in good working order can really help out.
  • Axe — actually, an axe is one of my favorite tools to use. They can be put to great advantage for wasting away tenon material, and even paring the tenon close to its final size. With a skilled hand, you can even chop out reductions. There are an astounding variety of axes in the world, but a useful size to have around would be something a bit bigger than your “typical” camp axe (with a handle about 19″, and a head weighing 2 lbs.) My axe of choice is the Gransfors Bruks Hunters Axe — its extremely well-balanced, can be swing with one or two hands, and the steel quality is very high. A vintage Kent pattern side hatchet is a good one to look out for at flea markets, too.

This should be more than enough to get you started!

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  • Peter Mortensen

    Pssst, no chainsaw? Guess that’s for those starting with a live tree 😉

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